Over the summer, the city of Detroit came under fire as reports of water being shut off to thousands of customers who were behind on their bills hit the media.
Recently, The Detroit News reported that while people’s water was still getting turned off, service was still running in abandoned properties throughout the city.
Sherman Foster admitted that he hadn’t paid his bill in four months, and it was approaching $200 when he received the warning that his service was about to be cut.
“[Foster] was shocked when city workers warned his service would be shut off,” reported The News. “After all, water from the house next door ran for more than two years before it was turned off in the burned out, boarded building.”
The vacant building had racked up a bill of almost $26,000.
Foster paid his bill without losing service, but questioned the city’s logic. “How in the world do you allow a bill to build like that? Then go after me for less than?” he asked. “It’s totally ludicrous the way Detroit runs its water system.”
Officials for the city’s water department say that customers’ unpaid bills cause rates to rise, which in turn make it even harder for the city’s poorest residents to get caught up.
Last Wednesday, Wayne County held an auction of over 11,000 tax-foreclosed homes. The water bills at these properties totaled $21.5 million, or an average of $1,600 per house. Over 100 of those houses had bills of at least $10,000, and 484 have bills of at least $5,000, The News Reported.
If so many of these homes were abandoned and/or vacant, why didn’t the department cut off service months, or even years, ago? Not allowing these properties to rack up debts reaching five-figures would have gone a long way to keeping rates lower, meaning residents would have a better shot at actually being able to afford paying past-due bills.
“It’s horrible,” said DeMeeko Williams, spokesperson for one of the groups opposing the shut-off, the Detroit Water Brigade. “The billing practices of the water department are just inept. It shouldn’t take months and months to shut off water on abandoned properties.”
The property with the biggest bill, a one bathroom, 876-square-foot house, owes $72,579. The majority of that debt, $68,000, was accrued last year, “three years after its owner died.”
It’s unlikely the city will ever see any of that money, though, because houses purchased at auction come with the water bill attached. Even if the small house was given away, the new owner would still be saddled with a $72,579 debt.
The city says that part of the frustration lies with the department replacing old water meters that ran slow, only tracking about 70 percent of water useage. Once the meters were replaced, people started being charged for the full 100 percent of their usage.
“The complaints are coming because our meters are more accurate now,” said Darryl Latimer, the water department’s deputy director.
Regardless of the situations with vacant properties, since the shutoffs increased over the spring and summer, about “75 percent of those whose water was turned off — about 15,000 customers — have had it restored after setting up payment plans,” according to The News.